Willa Cather was only nine years old when she was uprooted from her rural Virginia childhood and moved to the unforgiving plains of Nebraska. It was undoubtedly a defining moment of her life, one she was able to exploit as an adult by using her youthful experiences to create shimmering tales of romance, tragedy and spiritual seeking.
This is especially true of her second novel, O Pioneers!, in which she uses her memories to create a spare but evocative portrait of life on the frontier, particularly as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman, Swedish immigrant Alexandra Bergson (Jennifer Trimble).
The potential for a rich, passionate musical of self-discovery is enormous, but it is a potential that remains largely untapped in Robert Sickinger's overly ambitious adaptation. Nearly every incident in Cather's novel is represented, but nothing seems organic: Sickinger merely skims over the emotional highs and lows of the work, paying lip service without ever really igniting it into a musical with its own life force. There were far too many people populating the tiny stage of the Producers' Club, and nearly every one of them had their moment in the spotlight. Nice for the performers, but it widened the focus of Cather's intimate portrait to the extent that the central themes and characters got lost in a melange of smiling pioneers singing and dancing happily in the face of impending disaster. And when that disaster strikes, in the form of an adulterous affair and subsequent double murder, the dramatic moments have not been earned and therefore appear false. Sickinger, who also directed, further mis-stepped by making that affair between Alexandra's brother Emil and the married Marie (Lisa Neubauer) the central plot. In the book, it serves as a catalyst for Alexandra's own awakening sexuality, but in the musical, Alexandra's story is continually shoved aside in favor of the Emil and Marie subplot, making the denouement (i.e. Alexandra's own self-revelations) seem, once again, false and unearned. The score is melodic, and even has moments where it breaks free of all restraints and approaches grand opera, particularly the intense arias written for Marie's cuckolded husband Frank (an intensely frightening Oliver Burg).
The production was as featureless as the bleak Nebraska landscape it was set on, there were far too many laborious scene changes for no apparent reason, the costumes were colorful, and the choreography was rather frail. The performances were all adequate, some more so (Matthew Morse's brooding Emil, for one), some less so. All had lovely voices, and it is to their credit that they put everything they had into singing the heck out of the score.
Cather's novel, for all its sprawl, is essentially a very intimate work in which everything is shot through with a life force that is as raw and beautiful as life itself. Sickinger's musical O Pioneers! ignores that intimacy in favor of a spurious "BIG" musical style that it doesn't need, deserve, or even believe in.
(Also featuring Gayle Allard, Laura Baker, Lucianna
Baregi, Robert Beiderman, Jerome Causse, Jennifer
Edwards, Amy Elkins, Michael Gillis, Jim
Glenn, Mateja Govich, Keith Hallworth, Scott
Hunter, Heather Jewels, Alexander Le Fevre,
Femi Plimpton, Laurie Potter, Beth Renee, Fred
Rueck, John Rose, Lisa Rothauser, and Nick
Sattinger. Scenic design: Billy Fox; Lighting design:
Justin Burleson; Costume design: Meredith Benson.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita